This week a good friend of ours, Alan Law who runs This is Reportage, asked the members if they had any images that had a lasting impact on their careers. I have a few, I have been a photographer for a long time now. But one stood out to me. A portrait I shot while at college in Rome.

I love looking back over my history as a photographer. I’ve always felt like an artist. Continually honing my craft. There’s never a stage where you reach the finish line, you keep on developing and improving. But by the same token, I find it amazing to look back and such an old image and realise just what a great portrait this is.

Read below about how this image was taken.

Portrait Photo BW by Paul Tansley

Portrait – shot at college in Rome around 1988

This portrait was shot during a class when I was at college in Rome, at the Isituto Europeo di Design. The old man was just some old guy that came in to the class to sit for us all. The camera was on a tripod, it was probably an RZ67 if I remember correctly. Every member of the class had to go up to the camera, take a portrait shot, just one frame I seem to remember. When it got to my turn, my teacher Giovanni Canitano, one of Rome’s top photographers of the time changed the lens on the camera. Everybody had been shooting with the 180mm (a portrait lens – approx 85mm if I remember correctly on a 6×7). But he changed it to the 127mm lens instead (I seem to remember this was around a 50mm equivalent). I was a bit annoyed if I’m honest. It’s a bit like kicking you in the shins before you have to to a run. He knew I had potential to be a good photographer. He was a good friend at the time and guided me really well through college. But even so, I knew this was a challenge. So, I moved the light slightly to my taste, I may have had to move the camera a bit closer (can’t remember), I waited for my moment, then I took my shot.

It was later in class, after we’d all printed our photos ourselves in the darkroom then laid them all out on the floor, that something suddenly struck me profoundly. Nobody’s portraits looked like mine. It may sound slightly big headed, but out of around 30 students, 28 of the portraits were just so boring. They had nothing going for them in the least. There was maybe one other one that was semi interesting. But mine stood out a mile from anyone else’s. What is it that some photographers have, that their images just shine out in a special way. I’ve long held the belief that you can teach anyone to become a better photographer. But there’s also something innate in some people that makes them see the world differently. When they click that shutter, there is something special happening that you cannot teach. I haven’t see this photo in quite a few years. I had to dig it out of my loft. It’s a print around 14×11 printed on Agfa Record Rapid. The most beautiful photo paper ever made in my humble option. Pity they banned it because of all the horrible chemicals in it ? When I photographed it today, so that I could digitise it and send it over to Alan at This is Reportage, I’m amazed how strong a portrait it still is.

That day, I realised that I had something that my other photographers didn’t have. I had an inbuilt talent to take amazing photos, and my images were different. Special. They stood out from the crowd. I knew that my chances of becoming a working photographer and having something unique to sell had just increased massively. That was 32 years ago. Having been a working professional now for 26 years, it seems to be going ok.

Portrait Photo by Paul Tansley

Read what the other photographers had to say on the TIR website

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  1. Paul, this is just truly magnificent portrait. It has everything you need in a portrait and I can almost read this mans story from his face, eyes, suit and tie. You had it then and even more so now. Phil

    1. Thanks Phil. It’s funny, I always liked this photo, but haven’t looked at it properly in years. I think having to photograph it, to digitise it, then viewing it on screen, made me realise just how good it is. It’s really powerful. When it keeps coming up on my Facebook feed, it stops me and makes me want to look at it.